By Gwynne Dyer
The Syrian civil war is ten years old this week, and it’s time to stop it. At least half a million Syrians are dead, half the population are refugees – and we have known who won the war for at least four years now.
More fighting cannot change anything. The Russian military intervention in 2015 turned the tide, the remaining rebels are all crammed into one province, Idlib, and local ceasefires have silenced the guns in most places.
Yet there is no peace, because neither the rebels nor their foreign backers are willing to recognise the victory of Bashar al-Assad and his Baath Party. You can see why, because this is a dictatorship that pitilessly tortures and murders those who defy it, and in a world where divine justice prevailed it would surely have been destroyed.
But Assad won the war because enough people in Syria believe the Islamist jihadis would kill them if they came to power. All the religious minorities, Shia Muslim, Christian and Druze, believe that, plus anybody secular and anybody who works for the government, including teachers. They think of the jihadis as an Islamic version of the Khmer Rouge, and they’re not far wrong.
The jihadis didn’t dominate the original uprising in 2011, but Assad immediately freed around 6,000 Islamists from his jails. He hoped that they would win control of the opposition and frighten enough people into backing him instead, and it worked.
Foreign governments, some ignorant, some naive and some ‘soft’ Islamist themselves (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar), gave the jihadis guns and money, and they did take over the revolt. Then in 2015 Russia sent its air force in to save Assad, and by 2017 the war was effectively settled – but it did not stop.
It slowed almost to a stop after Assad had regained control of everything except Idlib province (occupied by Turkey) and the sparsely populated east of the country. But the anti-Assad foreigners won’t acknowledge his victory.
The United States actually strengthened its already savage sanctions against Syria last year. Assad’s key supporters are still scraping by, but the Syrian pound is worth less than a fifth of its value a year and 80% of the population is on the brink of starvation.
The US sanctions can go on forever at no cost to the United States, while American politicians feel virtuous and Syrians suffer, but there is a way to end this. It starts with accepting that Assad will stay in power.
What price would Assad pay for an end to sanctions? Quite a lot, because it would enable him to start rebuilding the country, however slowly, and end the isolation he has endured for the past decade.
The price would have to include an amnesty for all Syrians, including those who fought against him (except the jihadis). Many of the refugees wouldn’t go home anyway because they don’t trust him, but international supervision and guarantees for those who take up the offer could probably be negotiated.
Turkey would try to block the deal, but Russia would go along with it and put pressure on the Turks. Syria would still be a police state, but most people would be back in their homes and all the children would be back in school.
It would be something like the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, in other words, except with more international involvement and less vengeance against the losers. No promises, but it’s certainly worth a try.